Zambia's Sata finally gets his crown

2011-09-23 14:12

Johannesburg - He has been a policeman, car assembly worker, trade unionist and platform sweeper at London's Victoria station. To that list, Michael Sata, the man Zambians like to call King Cobra, can now add the job of president.

Coming just 10 years after he split from the former British colony's ruling party to go it alone on a largely nationalist ticket, Sata's victory over incumbent Rupiah Banda on Friday represents an astonishing ascent of the political ladder.

But it has also cast Africa's biggest copper producer into the unknown, with many Zambians and outsiders wondering what hat the gruff 74-year-old will be wearing when he takes over the reins after appearing doomed to run out his life in opposition.

His most famous attribute is a vicious tongue - a reputation enhanced by the rearing cobra statue that sits among the papers scattered across his desk in the run-down headquarters of his Patriotic Front (PF) party.

"I haven't bloody lost so don't waste my time," he barked at a BBC reporter in 2008 after results showed he had indeed lost an election to Banda, albeit by the narrowest of margins.

However, the venom of his speech may not be matched by the veracity.

"Although seen as a straight-talker, the PF leader's discourse is not burdened by an unwavering commitment to accuracy or truth," the US embassy's charge d'affaires wrote in a 2008 diplomatic cable entitled "Who is the King Cobra?"

"What he lacks in strategic thinking, he makes up for in political cunning and force of character," the cable, released by Wikileaks, continues.

Counting in his favour is considerable experience of political office, including overseeing the local government, health and labour portfolios under the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), which - until this week - had run Zambia since the end of the one-party state in 1991.

Prior to that, under first president Kenneth Kaunda, Sata won a reputation as a no-nonsense man of action while governor of the capital, Lusaka, suggesting his five years in office will not be business as usual.

Last century's man?

But the modern Zambia is a very different place from the one overseen by Kaunda's socialist, command-economy thinking for the 27 years after independence - a reality pointedly alluded to by Banda in a tearful concession speech.

"My generation, the generation of the independence struggle, must now give way to new ideas, ideas for the 21st century," said Banda, who, at 74, is the same age as his rival.

A flood of investment into the mining sector, most notably but not exclusively from China, has unleashed an economic boom and Zambia's high-yielding domestic bonds are now considered an option for fund managers as far away as London and New York.

Its currency, the kwacha , is also tossed around on the financial waves emanating from Europe's debt crisis, meaning Sata will have to respond to very powerful and complex forces way beyond his control.

It is unclear how the earthy populism and Christian zeal that won him votes among those who felt the fruits of economic liberalisation had passed them by will sit with the outsiders who have ploughed billions of dollars into the economy.

In a 2009, he accused Chinese mines in the Copper Belt of employing Zambians under slave labour conditions, and at a more recent public meeting called for the expulsion of Chinese migrant workers and the establishment of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, a move that would have outraged Beijing.

Scent of victory

In the last few weeks of campaigning he toned down the rhetoric, perhaps mindful of the importance of China to the economy - and therefore his own future.

He quit smoking after a heart attack in 2008, although concerns about his health persisted to the point that his opponents claimed he collapsed during this year's six-week election campaign.

With the scent of victory fresh in his nostrils, few expect him to take his foot off the pedal, especially when it comes to rooting out graft.

"Sata, a devout Catholic, is widely known as one of Africa's strongest anti-corruption campaigners and is expected to launch a strong anti-corruption purge," investment consultancy DaMina Advisors said.